Photographer: David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

California Invites Power Utilities Into the Car-Charging Market

Skip the Esso, let’s stop at the PG&E.

In California, more than 200,000 electric cars are on the road. But Governor Jerry Brown wants to raise that number to 1.5 million by 2025. Getting there requires figuring out something oil companies had to deal with a century ago: how to keep cars juiced up. “Nobody’s going to buy an electric car unless they see charging equipment where they commonly drive or park,” says Pasquale Romano, chief executive officer of ChargePoint, based in Campbell, Calif., which sells charging equipment.

Independent companies such as ChargePoint are pushing back against a solution put forward by Pacific Gas & Electric: Let utilities run the show. In response to a request from regulators, PG&E submitted plans to spend $160 million raised from ratepayers to roll out more than 7,500 electric filling stations in its service area, which spans the northern two-thirds of the state. “It’s a market that needs a bit of a jump-start,” says Aaron Johnson, PG&E’s vice president for customer energy solutions. “We want to see people using electricity as a transportation fuel. We think that’s great for our business.”

Under the PG&E plan, the utility would own and operate a network of stations but buy equipment from suppliers such as ChargePoint. Ratepayers will subsidize the PG&E stations until the electric-vehicle market catches up, an advantage startups don’t have. ChargePoint, which has installed 28,000 chargers in the U.S. and Canada, sells its equipment to building or parking lot owners, who then buy power directly from utilities such as PG&E. Another company, San Francisco-based Volta Charging, provides power free through its network and makes money by selling ad space on its machines.

At hearings before the state Public Utilities Commission in late April, private operators expressed their opposition to handing over a big chunk of the market to the utility. “Northern California is ground zero for EV adoption worldwide,” says Abdellah Cherkaoui, vice president for government affairs at Volta, which reimburses host-site owners or pays utilities directly for the power it provides through its stations. “This is going to drive away private investment.” The commission is expected to make a decision on the utility’s plan this summer.

Until 2014, California’s utilities were effectively barred from entering the car-charging market. Regulators feared they would use their monopolies and guaranteed profits to squelch private competition. Two years ago, when it became clear that independent operators weren’t building charging stations fast enough, the state’s utilities regulator loosened the rules. “We’re coming up on a real kink point in targets that have to be met,” says Nancy Ryan, a former commissioner for the state’s utilities regulator who’s now a partner at E3, an energy consulting firm in San Francisco. “Utilities can be a huge funding source for EV infrastructure.”

Utilities in the southern part of the state won regulatory approval in January to move ahead with pilot projects. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric plan to roll out 5,000 charging stations combined. Like PG&E, SDG&E will control its stations. Edison will spend $22 million to upgrade wiring to support independently operated charging stations.

A wide range of environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to the Natural Resources Defense Council, have thrown their support behind the utility proposals. “It’s too early to say which model is the best one,” says Max Baumhefner, an attorney at NRDC. “We need to be testing out different models in different parts of the state.”

The bottom line: Private operators say they’ll be squeezed out if California utility PG&E builds a $160 million charging network for electric cars.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE